Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech

Let me start this off by saying that I've been pleased by the first six months or so of the Obama administration. Obama is to my right on most issues, but then, that's elected officials for you. People to my left tend to get locked up in psych wards rather than elevated to political office, so I've gotten used to that.

Though there are lots of things I think Obama could be handling better for the most part he seems to be doing a decent job with a rough situation.

In that context let me also say that the Cairo speech last week was a pretty decent attempt to lay out some basic common ground between US foreign policy thinking and the thinking of the rest of the world's people who tend to take a dim view (as I do) of most of the core tenets of US foreign policy.

That said, there was one part of the speech that gave me a case of the disappointed-headshakes, which was paradoxically the part of the speech that's being most characterized as an "antiwar" sentiment.

Near the beginning of the speech, Obama had this to say:

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America's goals and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al-Qaida and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice. We went because of necessity. I'm aware that there's still some who would question or even justify the offense of 9/11. But let us be clear. Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on that day.

Which is pretty standard boilerplate for US foreign policy discussions over the last eight years. The statement's main drawback is that it has only a very vague relationship with reality.

The truth is, the war in Afghanistan was a war of choice. We didn't HAVE TO go invade Afghanistan. It is undeniably true that many people (including many people who are generally antiwar) felt at the time, just a few weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, that we had no option other than to invade. But that simply wasn't the case. There are many paths we could have taken with regard to pursuing the goals set forth at the start of the Afghanistan invasion.

This is one case among many where the really transcendent awfulness of the Bush administration has screwed up the entire context of our discourse. The Iraq invasion wasn't just a "war of choice." It was a self-evidently absurd and boneheaded policy choice that was at the time completely unmoored from any rational, ethical or moral foundation.

Compared to the Iraq invasion, though, Afghanistan is generally thought of in the US as "Bush's good war." So it generally gets the sort of treatment that it got in Obama's Cairo speech.

I just want to make a couple quick points about this. At a very minimum, if we're going to talk about whether a decision was correct or not we should compare the consequences to the probably consequences of the main alternative course of action (in this case, pursuing the 9/11 terrorists through an international criminal investigation rather than through military action), and also to what might have happened if we had done nothing.

The three primary goals set out in the early weeks of the war were the goals of apprehending Osama bin Laden, disrupting and restricting the activities of Islamist guerillas operating in Afghanistan, and ousting the Taliban in favor of a democratic, representative government.

On the first goal, obviously we failed utterly as bin Laden is as far as anyone knows still at large. It can't really be known whether he could have been apprehended by an international criminal justice effort but it's certainly the case that he wouldn't be less in custody than he is now. In fact, it's fairly clear we could have gotten the same result if we had done nothing.

On the second goal, people generally assume that the Afghanistan invasion has done a lot to restrict the movement of guerillas in Afghanistan, but the one specific investigation of that question that I know of (Hy Rothstein's "Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare") concludes that the picture is at best mixed. The US effort in Afghanistan has been remarkably, and foolishly, focused on blowing things up rather than building the kinds of human networks that make it difficult for terrorist groups to operate, and thus it's not very clear how much we've really improved things with the invasion. Once again we can say that the international criminal investigation probably would have achieved at least the same result, if not a better one, and that doing nothing at all would not have been demonstrably worse than invading.

As for ousting the Taliban, we did that, but we never managed to replace them with anything particular, and thus in the judgment of most of the experts I've read if we were to withdraw from Afghanistan today the Taliban or some Taliban-like group would regain control of the country fairly quickly. This is the one area where you can say pretty definitively that the invasion came closer to achieving the goal than could have been achieved by doing nothing or by conducting a criminal investigation. It's not nothing, but given the costs of the invasion, high on the US side and immense on the Afghanistan side, it's pretty thin gruel.

Now, it's not logically impossible for something to have been completely necessary and yet failed to achieve any substantive positive results. There's an argument to be made that the Afghanistan war was necessary and correct despite having failed. It's just that I'd like to see someone actually MAKE that argument, instead of it constantly being assumed to be self-evidently true that a failed war was a good idea.

1 comment:

Uncle Kevin said...

A review of history will find that we almost never discuss going to war, it is basically presented as a given. It doesn't take long to think about why, anyone who would rationally think about fighting a "war of choice" would never choose to do such a thing.